Facebook has formed an internal team to work on virtual reality, and it's pushing its own 360-degree video technology onto the Gear VR. The company announced today that the new group will research "social VR," including "how people can connect and share using today's VR technology" and the long-term possibilities if VR develops as a computing platform. So far, Facebook has mostly relied on Oculus — the virtual reality hardware startup it acquired in 2014 — to push the technology forward. But now, there's a group firmly on the Facebook side of the company, supposedly working closely with both Oculus and other parts of Facebook.
Facebook doesn't say how many people are assigned to work on social VR, or what exactly it thinks a social virtual reality experience might include. But the team is led by two game developers: Daniel James, co-founder of Puzzle Pirates and Spiral Knights studio Three Rings Design, and Mike Booth, who led development for Valve's cooperative zombie shooter Left 4 Dead. Interestingly, Booth's LinkedIn page already listed him as a product manager of Facebook "Social VR" before today's announcement, the role dating back to December of 2015. He posted a job description suggesting that Facebook may be drawing heavily from the world of massively multiplayer gaming:
I'm building a team to explore how Virtual Reality can empower the 1.5+ billion people on Facebook to share their experiences and connect with each other in amazing and powerful new ways.
If you're a veteran game developer experienced in building multiplayer online 3D games, come help me build the future of Social VR!
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has frequently praised the social possibilities of virtual reality, although Oculus has so far focused on promoting more traditional gaming experiences. Last year, he called immersive media the "obvious next thing after video." There have been persistent rumors about Facebook developing virtual reality apps, and the company added non-VR 360-degree video to the platform last year. But it only started seriously addressing the prospect of virtual reality Facebook content in January, when it described a technique for streaming high-quality VR video.
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That wasn't just academic discussion: the company now also says it's adding this streaming technology to Samsung and Oculus' Gear VR headset. Facebook isn't rolling out a new virtual reality app right now, though. Instead, we should see better quality from the catalog of Facebook 360-degree videos already available (along with Vimeo and Twitch content) through the Oculus video app. Poor streaming quality in general was a notable shortcoming when the headset came out last year, and any improvement is a welcome change. Despite this issue, Facebook says that Gear VR users have collectively watched one million hours of video overall.
Right now, Gear VR is one of the only real homes for virtual reality software. But in slightly over a month, Oculus will release its high-quality Rift headset. Whatever Facebook has in store for mobile VR, it's also likely to be developing for the Rift — where full-fledged virtual worlds may make more sense than 360-degree video.